Movie trailers can be a deceptive thing.
They can make comedies seem side-splittingly funny even though they used all the good jokes in the ad. Horror flicks can seem scarier in two minutes of previews than 95 minutes of an actual feature.
And in some cases, a wily editor can cut together a trailer that changes the genre and intent of a film altogether, misleading potential audiences to think they’re getting something that they’re not and tanking the long-term viability of a movie in search of getting viewers to buy tickets opening weekend.
Pushed as a high-voltage action thriller with a dazzling, beautiful lead actress, “The Rhythm Section” is a slow-burn espionage drama about a woman’s search for revenge and redemption following unimaginable loss.
This isn’t “witness the birth of an assassin” as the film’s tagline suggests.
It’s “observe the rebirth of a victim who’s not dead yet.”
Director Reed Morano’s feature follows Stephanie Patrick, a woman whose idyllic life shatters after the death of her entire family in a plane crash. When a journalist finds her prostituting and taking drugs to ease her pain, the information he reveals to her sets Stephanie on a collision course with the truth that the crash might not have been accidental.
Given a part with real depth, Blake Lively has the ability to be the best actress in any scene opposite any other performer. “The Rhythm Section” gives Lively the time and character background to immerse herself into a world of emotional frailty and loss covered by an almost impenetrable facade of numbed apathy.
Her transformation as Stephanie from joyful to hopeless soul to would-be revenge assassin builds around the emotional burden Stephanie carries first, with flashbacks drawing audiences into her mental state and grounding the whole film with the weight of her sorrow.
The why Stephanie acts the way she does and decides to go on her quest for revenge – an attempt to make herself somewhat whole again – is more important to “The Rhythm Section” than the how she actually carries out her missions.
Her soul ripping apart at the seams in high-stress moments brings about the sort of fractured humanity that blockbuster action films just won’t delve into and Lively excels in these moments as Stephanie’s humanity causes hesitations that become her biggest flaw in her new line of work and her biggest asset in regaining herself.
Jude Law is solid, not spectacular as a former MI6 agent who takes Stephanie under his wing and points her safely into harm’s way, while Sterling K. Brown tries hard but feels out of sync with the rest of the film as an intelligence broker Stephanie seeks information from.
Action scenes are not as big and bold as the film’s trailer – and likely a majority of its initial audience – projected. Like the rest of “The Rhythm Section,” violence is intimate and in close quarters to keep audiences firmly in Stephanie’s mind as events whirl around her. The camera rarely strays from her vantage point, which amps up the urgency of scenes.
Visually, “The Rhythm Section” benefits from Oscar-nominated cinematographer Sean Bobbitt teaming up with Morano – a cinematographer in her own right – to progress the style of the film from chaotic, drug-induced mania to a colder, distant look as the camera work mirrors Stephanie’s evolution as a character. Bobbitt makes an arresting use of light and shadow to give the film a gritty texture uncommon to action films outside of the Jason Bourne franchise.
“The Rhythm Section” was never going to work on the big screen, especially not with the pressure placed on its success by Paramount to recoup its $50 million budget by immediately placing the film in over 3,000 theaters during late January.
An arthouse film released in a blockbuster world, “The Rhythm Section” fits the mold of theatrical adaptations of John le Carré novels like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “A Most Wanted Man” or intimate spy thrillers like Steven Soderbergh’s underappreciated 2012 gem “Haywire.”
With movie audiences staying at home and in constant need of something different, perhaps a fantastic leading effort from Lively, grounded drama and rich cinematography, there’s hardly a better time to take a chance on this well-made arthouse espionage thriller.